Red, yellow, orange, and green blur together as I stare into the colorful hills between Brasstown Bald and Blood Mountain, deep in the wilds of North Georgia, the foothills of the Appalachians – and one had better pronounce that with a short a around here. I wonder, will these smokey, rolling hills be the last stronghold of Euro-American culture? Ever a retreat for the strong-willed and stubborn, Appalachia is still a hold-out for those who value tradition, heritage, and the tried and true ways of our hardened ancestors. Music, ministry, and moonshine find a place here, unhurried by the rest of the world whose rootless inhabitants see the so-called hillbilly as a backward fool, a caricature of humanity to be mocked and abused without fear of breaking any politically correct taboos.
The hillbilly, the redneck, the backwoods cracker. Who is he? He is a rebel, stubbornly defiant to the tainted gods of progress. He is a man who will fight for freedom, tradition, family. He is a man who remembers. He remembers his ancestors, those rugged frontier farmers who marched westward with their fiddles, forges, and folktales. He remembers their courageous answer to the call for revolution. He remembers their pivotal roll in founding and settling this country. Ask him; the hillbilly remembers.
He remembers his ancestors’ reluctance to join in the War between the States; most hill folk were too poor and willfully isolated to care for the politics of the rest of the country and they certainly did not care for the few wealthy planters who might reside nearby. They were drafted just the same, and so they marched out of the mountains and did their duty. How were they rewarded? In the chaotic aftermath of the war we find tales of rebel soldiers just trying to go home and get on with their lives. Sure, the war was over but not for these poor folk; East Tennessee had it the worst.
Governor Brownlow, a Northern interloper, decided to cleanse the mountains because he thought those ungodly rebels, even the women and children, should all be killed and he set about doing just that – and all of this after the war. They were ordered to leave and many did, just loaded their wagons and went west. The ones who stayed and got caught became victims of classic mob mentality, receiving 400 lashes or just plain being shot. If you defended yourself, you were hung. Brownlow even asked citizens and soldiers alike to dispose of rebels on their way back to Tennessee. Their children weren’t allowed to go to school. Veterans finally returning home after the hell they’d been through were attacked and beaten in the streets before they made it home, if they made it home.
Plenty did, and they stubbornly stayed. Their roots were there, most stretching all the way from Germany, Scotland, England, and Ireland. The great-grandparents of those shuffling back from the War of Northern Aggression (yes, many still call it that) brought more than their sun-burned necks with them from the old country. They brought seed, story, and song. Go there today, tomorrow, next week. Buy a bag of vegetables, maybe some flour, cornmeal, or grits and you’ll get a story as well, about great-greats crossing the sea with a pocketful of seeds, starting a farm, playing the fiddle while the crops grew, singing songs to pass the time after harvest, songs that still echo across those hills back to the shores of the old country. They will tell you about those same families farming those same fields with seed from those same crops, untouched by the passage of time. The hillbilly – ridiculed, mocked, and derided – has something the rest of us don’t. He has memory. He has family. He has tradition tying him to something the tainted gods of progress can never touch. Is that why modernity hates him?